Developing the Estimator: The First Six Months

Charles Mahaffey

August 2006

Through the years, I have had people ask me what it takes to become an estimator. Of course I told them that they must possess a good math aptitude and have the ability to read and understand construction drawings. Although an academic degree in construction is helpful, I personally don’t believe that a construction degree makes a person a better construction estimator than someone who does not possess a degree.

The development and the application of estimating skills is something that, like any other profession, takes time. It should take about three years for an estimator to be trained and competent enough to take on the larger projects, in my opinion. There is an important developmental process that should take place and milestones that should be met during these three formative years.

A friend of mine once asked me to critique something he had written, an outline he called, "Developing the Estimator.” I reviewed what he had written, added a few points of my own and sent it back to him. I have borrowed from my friend’s piece to come up with this outline of the developmental process with the hope that it might help you plot a future course for your estimators.

We start with what a good estimator should learn in his first six months on the job.

Learn the Common Materials

For the estimator to learn to estimate the typical scope of metal framing, drywall, plaster and other exterior systems, the estimator must know the name of each material that is typically used.

The beginning estimator would learn the sizes available, the types, the purpose, the limitations and/or advantages and the manufacturers for every material. For instance, metal studs all have limiting heights. The limiting heights for metal studs are based on the span, size, gauge and on-center spacing of the stud and the applicable load. Learning to utilize the limiting heights charts is of great importance.

Learn to Build a Proper Foundation

Students that have attended my estimating classes have heard me state, "How you begin an estimate has everything to do with how you finish.” Building the proper foundation sets the stage for a successful career as an estimator. It is all about organizing a neat takeoff, marking plans and details, identifying the dimensions and scale of the drawings, taking good notes and knowing what to do with those notes.

Understand the Plans and Specifications

The estimator must learn what the prioritization is for specifications over plans, and details over other details. The estimator must also develop the skill to take a one or two dimensional drawing and "see” the building in three dimensions.

Become Familiar with and Knowlegeable about Computer Systems

Not only should the estimator know the computer estimating system, but he should have an understanding of the accounting system as well.

Develop the Skills for Writing Effective Correspondence

An estimator can produce the most accurate takeoff and estimate, but he would also need to be able to properly convey his scope and pricing in the form of an effective proposal.

Next month we will continue with what the first-year estimator should be learning.

About the Author
Charles Mahaffey is president of Accuest, LLC, Marietta, Ga. Accuest provides estimating and consulting services for commercial drywall subcontractors.